Apr 2007

A bunch of stuff

Right. Well first up I’ve just upgraded to the latest version of WordPress. Previous upgrades have gone very smoothly, but this one was a bit of a nightmare (there was a brief moment when I thought the database backup hadn’t gone to plan and I’d lost all the comments… quite stressful really). Anyways, I think it’s sorted now, but I’d obviously be grateful if you let me know of any bugs or problems that you notice.

You shouldn’t see any changes on the site (all the interesting stuff is behind the scenes) and my initial impression of the upgrade isn’t all that favourable to be honest… it’s all well and good, more responsive, bits and pieces of AJAX here and there and what have you, but the ‘HTML’ button has disappeared from the rich text editor. This used to allow a separate window to be opened into which you could type raw HTML (paragraph tags and all). They’ve now substituted that for a new “code view” that’s like some bastardised halfway house between rich text editing and HTML. Some tags show up, but others don’t. Very silly and very very annoying. All the same, it would now be a serious pain in the arse to downgrade, so I’ll soldier on for a few days and see if I get used to the new editor. If not, I’ll take on that arse pain as a learning experience.

There also seem to be some quite serious problems with the various pop-ups within the rich text editor (link and image inserts and the like). Leastways in Firefox. So yeah, I’d think long and hard about upgrading past version 2.0.x if I were you. This new 2.1.x malarkey seems like a step backwards to me (the running autosave is the reason I upgraded, and should cut down on posts lost to browser crashes, but I don’t know if it outweighs the problems). But hey, maybe it’ll grow on me.

And now to cast an eye over the headlines…

Blair’s delight

First up is the fascinating news (fascinating if you’re a fricking idiot that is) that “Friends of Prince Harry have denied reports that he will quit the Army if he is not allowed to serve in Iraq.” In fact I only read the story to snigger at the obligatory quote claiming that it’s “important that Harry [is] treated as much as possible like an ordinary soldier”. All the contradictions of royalty rolled into one tiny phrase. He must treated as an ordinary soldier… an ordinary person. But of course, he isn’t. He’s royal. I still find it mind-boggling that any modern nation can tolerate royalty. What a load of bollocks.

But the story contained an unexpected treat. A statement from Tony Blair that paints him as an even more monstrously detached and absurd figure than I’d thought possible. Apparently the lunatic has revealed to journalists that he’d be “delighted” if one of his kids wanted to serve in Iraq. Er… what!? I’m not a parent, but I’m fairly certain that you’d have to be some kind of freak to be “delighted” that a child of yours wanted to significantly increase their risk of having their limbs blown off by a roadside bomb. I can — just about — understand a parent who claims to be “proud” that their child donned a uniform and went to a place where people were willing to kill themselves in order to hurt people wearing that uniform.

But delighted? For feck’s sake, what an idiotic remark!

But did he leave a tip?

Via Gyrus comes the unsettling news that diners in a London restaurant were recently subjected to a display of self-mutilation that indicates either a very serious mental illness or an equally serious dedication to Flanaganesque performance art. I suspect the former.

The poor guy wandered into a Zizzi pizza restaurant, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and proceeded to stab himself repeatedly with it. He also cut off his penis (which surgeons were later unable to reattach).

Now, I’ve been in some very dark places in my life. Which is OK. It makes the brighter places that much better. I can empathise with most self-destructive behaviour because, knowing how dark the world can be, I understand those who seek extreme ways to escape that darkness. My closest friend for many years commit suicide during the 90s and although it was a terrible and traumatic time for all those who knew him, and despite the fact that I was angry with him for a long time afterwards, I nonetheless understood his action even while disagreeing with it.

But to commit a public act of such extreme self-mutilation goes far beyond mere self-hate. It reveals a multi-layered psychosis, producing an act of aggression aimed as much at the involuntary witnesses as at the psychotic himself. It’s a very deliberate act of destruction against The Other. And in this case The Other is everyone. Including The Self. Oppositional dualism has a lot to answer for.

Colony Collapse Disorder and misattributed quotes

Some time ago I read an article on the BBC news website which opens with the statement that “All over America, beekeepers are opening up their hives in preparation for the spring pollination season, only to find that their bees are dead or have disappeared.” Now this phenomenon appears to have crossed the Atlantic and beekeepers in Somerset are worried that it has hit them.

I’ve read several theories as to why this could be happening (from climate change to an as-yet unidentified chemical pollutant to mobile phone masts to GM pollen) but whatever the reason, it’s very very bad news. As every schoolchild is aware, bees are a very important (if not the most important) mechanism for pollinating plants. And not just pretty flowers… our food-crops are largely bee-pollinated. It’s this fact that (via David Byrne) led Einstein to remark…

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.

It’s certainly a scary thought. But, after a bit of digging, it appears that actually it wasn’t Einstein’s. There’s no record of him saying anything of the sort, and indeed the more I analyse the quote, the less it sounds like Einstein. He often spoke about the apparent unpredictability of complex systems (unpredictable not because of any lack of causality, but because the mechanisms of causality in most complex systems are so many and often so convoluted as to make prediction impossible in practice) and would be unlikely to make such a simplistic series of links as can be found in the second sentence of that quote.

He was also certainly smart enough to know that bees are not the only mechanism of pollination.

But that doesn’t make the massive decrease in the bee population any less worrying. As I mentioned; the vast majority of our food crops are indeed pollinated by bees and anything that significantly reduces their numbers will almost certainly result in a significant reduction in crop yields.

My own theory doesn’t lay the blame on any single factor. It’s my honest belief that human industry is degrading the ability of our planet to sustain life in a myriad of ways. A massive confluence of causes — GM crops, mobile phone masts, climate change and chemical pollutants (plus about a thousand others) — are having unpredictable effects. And I doubt very many of those effects are going to be welcome.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2007

Photolog: The Phil Lynott Memorial

“There should be more statues with big hair”. That was my first thought upon seeing the Phil Lynott memorial (located just off Grafton Street — one of Dublin’s most-walked thoroughfares — and sculpted by Paul Daly). But as that thought sank in, it was followed by a somewhat less silly one… “I think this is the first statue of a black person that I’ve ever seen… big hair or not”.

The Phil Lynott Memorial

I have no doubt that there are statues of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King… maybe even Malcolm X? But I’ve never seen them. I lived in London for a while and pretty much all the statues there are of military conquerors. My favourite of those… statues not conquerors… is the one of Clive of India surveying St. James’ Park. It encapsulates all of the ridiculous pomposity of the British establishment as well as the astonishing arrogance of Empire. Plus it has an inscription on the side which reads… “Clive in the mango tope on the Eve of Plassey” which — for reasons lost in the mists of time and a haze of smoke — was one of the funniest things I’d ever read when I first noticed it.

Anyways, most of London’s statues are memorials to white men who spent their time subjugating brown, black or yellow people. The same is true of most of Europe’s colonial nations… so perhaps in one sense it’s no surprise that the first statue (I think) I’ve seen with an afro should be in a nation that itself spent most of history as a colony. Of course, in another sense it is a surprise. After all, until very recently (the past fifteen years) Ireland was — racially speaking — about as homogeneous a nation as existed. This wasn’t because of any strict immigration policy… merely because no bugger in their right mind would have wanted to come here. For the past few hundred years people have been leaving this island in their droves, and arrivals were few and far between.

All the same, at some point Phil’s ancestors arrived on these shores and the stage was set for Thin Lizzy. I should point out that I’m not a big fan of the band (they had a guitar sound that was always a bit… ummm… widdly for me). Nonetheless, despite the widdliness, I’ll always have a spot in my heart for the classic The Boys Are Back In Town which takes me back to a very special time and place.

There are three photos in my Phil Lynott Memorial set on Flickr (and you can locate the statue on this map).

2 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Photos

Apr 2007

Some reviews

Hallo folks. Well, I’m finally back from my extended Easter break. A long-weekend got transformed into a ten day holiday thanks to West Cork’s unusually-Mediterranean weather. Technically I was cycling (on my new and excellent bike). But I feel a bit of a cheat making that claim as the time mostly consisted of sitting on cliff-tops or beaches and eating the occasional biscuit. In amidst all the lazing about in the sun though, I helped someone clean a patio (don’t ask). Right at the end, after all the heavy lifting, bending and scrubbing was done, I decided to give the stones one last leisurely sweep. It was just then that some hitherto uncomplaining muscle in my lower back decided to go “ping” (or whatever sound muscles make when they tear).

At the time it was fairly painful, but bearable. The next day though was spent sitting in a car on my way back to Dublin. A journey that gave my back plenty of time to seize up good and proper. It’s starting to sort itself out now, and movement without unreasonable agony is possible again. But lying motionless for over a week has given me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I can spend a week cycling and clambering over rocks and climbing the occasional tree and it be nothing but physically pleasurable… but a few hours of repetitive labour will bugger up my back.

This should surprise nobody except the creationists.

Of course, lazing around on the couch blitzed on painkillers and muscle-relaxants is hardly the worst fate that can befall a person (though it annoys me that I was forced to resort to such medication… the dearth of quality sensimilia in this country is shameful). Especially a person with an extensive DVD collection. So, some quickie reviews…

Stalker. It’s possible that this late-70s Russian art-SF film would be utterly incomprehensible even without taking a bunch of strong painkillers. Right now though, I can’t say for sure. Hypnotic, dreamlike and very odd. I recommend it.

Six Feet Under (Season 1). Television is almost never this good. The writing is wonderful, the acting is flawless and the production values make most Hollywood films seem pale and one-dimensional. I must admit to being vaguely annoyed by the very final scene of the season, but aside from that I can’t think of a single thing wrong with this programme. An unflinching and visionary look at human relationships and emotion. A work of genius.

Stranger Than Fiction. I have very little time for Will Ferrell (his part in Zoolander was bearable only because the rest of the film was so funny) but given the hype surrounding this film (I can’t help but be interested when the name Charlie Kaufman is mentioned, even if only by comparison) I figured it was worth a shot. And it turns out that — just like Jim Carrey — Will Ferrell is capable of doing a half-decent job when cast against type… in this case as a dull, repressed, buttoned-down office worker. Definitely worth a look.

Casino Royale. A bearable action flick. The chase scene at the beginning is by far the best part. When it shows up on TV it’s worth tuning in to the first ten minutes or so. Sadly it’s all downhill after that. Even the much-discussed torture scene is sanitised, so that it forces you to wince rather than turn away from the screen (as in Reservoir Dogs or Syriana). If someone’s getting tortured on-screen and you’re only wincing, then the director hasn’t done their job very well.

The Ice Harvest. John Cusack is a very watchable actor. And he’s been in some excellent films. Unfortunately his ratio of good films to utter dross isn’t as good as it once was, and he’s getting close to being an indication that I don’t want to see a film rather than a reason to see it. This is a particularly silly thriller that telegraphs every single plot twist and has a dire cop-out ending. Avoid.

I also rewatched Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (possibly my favourite film ever) which gets more beautiful and moving with every viewing. Kitano had a degree of international success with Zatoichi which — it seems — irritated him somewhat. In response he made what is apparently one of the weirdest and most impenetrable films of recent years… Takeshis’. I can’t wait to see it!


Lately my reading has become rather more focussed than is traditional for me. Regimented even. On my shelf since Christmas sits Pynchon’s massive and enticing Against The Day. It is, as yet, unopened. Well, that’s not strictly true… I couldn’t resist reading the first couple of pages… it starts well, introduced by a Thelonious Monk quote — “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light” — and opening aboard the hydrogen airship, Inconvenience. But I decided back at Christmas that I’d wait until summer to read it. For two reasons. One of them being that the best place and time to read great fiction is under some trees on a warm sunny day.

A bit less fluffy, the other reason is simply that although I’m looking forward to full-time study, it’s meant I’ve had to spend a wee while “revising”. See, before I made an abrupt about-turn and got sucked into engineering, my original degree — quite a while ago — was in philosophy. It included courses on ‘The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis’, ‘Theories of Rationality’ and the heavily-psychoanalytical ‘Philosophy and Gender’. Nonetheless, it was still primarily a philosophy course and in no way did it provide a formal grounding in psychoanalysis. And because psychoanalysis is a complex subject (in the sense that there are a multitude of competing theories) it can take a while to acquire a fairly thorough overview. There’s no single book I’ve found that does even a quarter-decent job, so it’s a case of reading several different collections, often with a phrase like “The Essential” in the title (as, for instance, in Princeton’s excellent The Essential Jung) and keeping those most invaluable tools by your side… The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology and The Penguin Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. The bevelled edges are pretty cool too.

I’m also starting to get the impression that Lacan is just Sartre with Venn Diagrams. But I imagine you get into trouble with the psychoanalytic community for saying things like that.

Anyways, I’m recovered enough to sit at the PC for more than five minutes without fretting that my back is going to seize up again. There was a worrying few days when I convinced myself that I’d slipped a disc, which I’m told can sometimes require surgery. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I managed to cycle to the village and back today without any ill effect. So once I’ve caught up on my email, I’ll hopefully be blogging on a semi-regular basis again.

Apr 2007

No! Not the comfy chair!

Just over a week ago, fifteen British service personnel were captured by the Iranian navy. Iran claims the British soldiers were half a kilometre inside Iranian territory and — according to the recording function on their GPS navigation — had regularly entered Iranian waters as part of their patrols. The captured soldiers confirm this version of events. Of course, the British response is “you’re fooling nobody, Mahmoud”. The troops were in Iraqi waters, goes the British argument, and are now being fed scripted lines to speak on-camera by the dastardly Iranians!

Clearly there’s only a handful of people who know the truth, and neither you nor I, dear reader, will ever be among them. Long after these troops are released (as certainly they will be) the UK will claim they did nothing wrong and Iran will claim they illegally entered their territory. So that particular fact is unlikely to ever be resolved. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that as far as Iran is concerned, US/UK troops in Iraqi territory constitute an illegal army of occupation. Nonetheless, the incident has highlighted some intriguing differences in the manner in which Iran has treated these soldiers and how the US/UK coalition treats captured “enemy combatants”.

There are those who will dismiss the comparison. We’re not at war with Iran, they’ll point out, so British troops aren’t “enemy combatants” as far as Iran should be concerned. Which would be a good point if it wasn’t such bullshit. Under Tony Blair, the British military has been transformed into an extension of U.S. foreign policy. And it’s not just any U.S. administration we’re talking about. It’s the regime of George W. Bush; a man who announced that Iran was part of an axis of evil and then bombed the hell out of its neighbours to the east (Afghanistan) and to the west (Iraq). According to one estimate, between 2 and 3 percent of the Iraqi population has died violently since the US/UK launched their invasion.

If China openly announced that it considered the UK to be “evil” and then launched massive bombing campaigns and invasions of France and Ireland, followed up by routine patrols right along the edge of British waters while all the time urging the rest of the world to impose crippling sanctions against Britain as response to their nuclear programme; then I submit to you that any captured Chinese military personnel would be treated as ‘the enemy’.

I also submit to you, based upon the recent track-record of Britain and the United States, that the captured Chinese would receive far worse treatment than the British soldiers have so far received in Iran.

We do not, of course, know how the British personnel have been treated while the cameras have been turned off. We don’t know whether they’ve been stripped naked except for the bags over their heads and then forced to simulate sex with one another. We don’t know whether they’ve had to huddle naked in the corner of a tiny cell while Iranian soldiers held massive snarling dogs just inches away. We don’t know whether they’ve had electric wires held to their genitals or were piled high so that Iranian guards could laugh at them and take souvenir snaps.

Conversely, I suppose you could argue that we only saw the worst of Abu Ghraib. We didn’t see the detainees sitting around in comfy chairs, sharing a cigarette and a joke, before being fed good meals and asked nicely to apologise for whatever wrongs they were accused of. I wonder why.

Iran has thus far resisted the temptation to make the captured soldiers “disappear” into a shadowy system of unofficial prisons and rendition flights. They haven’t dumped them into an illegal and immoral prison camp in Cuba to rot without representation. They haven’t decided to hold them for years without charge.

Incidentally, did anyone else notice this report from a couple of weeks ago… Escape from UK-run prison in Iraq…? There’s a line in the report, about halfway in, that completely overshadows the relatively mundane story in the headline… A security source told the agency that the prisoners had been held without charge for the past two years. It seems that Britain’s reluctance to criticise Guantanamo Bay too loudly is now explained… the British government is running one or more similar institutions itself. And why is it that we only hear about Britain locking people up for years without charge when the prisoners stage an escape?

If Iran treated these prisoners the way Britain and America treat enemy prisoners, we wouldn’t have heard about them once they’d been captured. They’d have disappeared into some anonymous camp to be degraded, terrorised and tortured. Within a couple of years, some of them may have been driven to suicide. An act that the Iranians would describe as “a good PR move“.

19 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion